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The Canaries: Spain’s Hawaii

For a combination of a birthday treat and to escape the winter in Ankara, I spent some time in Lanzarote, a part of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.  Like Hawaii, this is a volcanic island chain that still has a few active volcanos, a volcano national park, and a wide variety of beaches.

I stayed at an airbnb house just outside of Arrecife, the current capital.  If you contorted yourself while looking south, you could see the ocean from the house.  Unfortunately stormy weather prevented beach days when I first arrived, but this was actually a good thing, as I had to finish one last paper for school. Once the paper was done, the sun came out, at least for part of every day, so I combined beach time with visiting some of the island’s sights.

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All the different cloud patterns signalled crazy weather

My first site was the Mirador al Rio, a northern viewpoint overlooking the islet between Lanzarote and Graciosa, a small island holding a fishing community of 500.  Like most vista points at the corners of land, this one was extremely windy!  I could only stay outside for a few minutes before I was shivering and my lips were chapped.  Luckily, all of the tourist sites on the island have cafes built in, so I was able to sit and warm up with some cafe con leche and still admire the view. The cliff is a tall 450 m curve into the ocean – much more impressive in person than the photograph below.

On the way back I stopped at Lagomar, which was the cliffside home of Omar Sharif. After filming on the island, he fell in love with the place and built a home here and then, according to rumor, he lost it in a poker game.  With balconies, pools, and sitting areas built into all of the nooks and crannies of the cliffs, this place must have seen some amazing parties.  Now it’s a museum, bar, and restaurant.  Although I didn’t get there in time to see the interior, I wandered through the yards and then enjoyed a few local beers in the bar, which is set back in a cliff chasm.  I had a lot of fun listening to electronica, which usually isn’t my favorite kind of music, and watching the lights from a disco ball dance around the cliff walls.  Is this what tripping out is like? I wondered while ordering another beer.  The whole place also has lots of cool metal art scattered around.  I always want to buy these things from the metalworkers at county fairs back in the States, but am usually short on funds or a means of getting them to my place.  So far, my collection only includes a clock made from used parts.

I was really excited to browse the market in Teguise, which is the island’s old capital.  Unfortunately, it was mostly stalls full of junk and knock-off purses.  There are tons of Irish and British expats who live on the island, so a whole part of the market was dedicated to real UK food shipped weekly.  I had no idea chips were so important!

The volcanic nature of Lanzarote provides lots of interesting features in the landscape.  Along with all of the rocky beaches, I really liked Jameos del Agua, which is a long lava tube that actually goes into the ocean.  You can visit different parts.  Cesar Manrique, the island’s native son architect, designed the tourist attraction to blend with the volcanic rock and make the most of the site.

The sun came out while I was relaxing by the pool at Jameos, so I headed down to the coastline.  The waves were really incredible and a couple of surfers were having a ball riding them in.

Although I wasn’t surfing, sitting on the beach and watching the waves while was mesmerizing for me.  The sunshine didn’t hurt either!

While waiting for the sun another day, I visited Timanfaya National Park, the volcanic area in the western part of the island.  Once you get to the park, you have to take a park tour bus to explore the landscape.  I had read that they let you out for pictures, but unfortunately these days they only stop, so you can’t help the glare on your pictures.  The twisty turny mountain road is narrow and looked pretty dangerous, so I guess it makes sense to forbid tourists to use it.  The last eruptions were in the 1730s, but you can still feel the heat of the volcano today.  The restaurant even offers food cooked over the volcano!

My favorite town on the island was Golfo, a two road village on the West Coast.  Along with beautiful coastline, its main industry seems to be fishing, as aside from a village store, the whole place is lined with seafood restaurants.  I snagged a table right on the water’s edge, and ordered my favorite Spanish tapas: gambas al ajillo, or shrimp in garlic.  I don’t usually mindlessly eat bread dipped in oil, but this is the kind of meal that you’ve got to lick up!  After stuffing myself with the shrimp, and the island’s mojo, red and green sauces, I tried to finish a whole fish as well – it didn’t happen, but was well worth the effort.  One of the island’s specialties is wrinkled potato.  I had these my first night, and couldn’t quite appreciate their difference from boiled potatoes.  But the potatoes served alongside my fish were an amazing combination of roasted and boiled textures and tastes finished with a salted crust.  I recommend trying them, but probably only at a more authentic place (i.e. in Golfo and not in Playa Carmen).

While I was eating this guy came down to the ocean to clean a fish:

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So then of course these birds all came to see what was going on:

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My new friend visited me a few times – he was the only cat I saw on the island!

And finally, here are some of the views of the west coast of Lanzarote.

Christmas in Budapest

I left Vienna by train to meet the some other Olmsted scholars and their families for a very merry Christmas in Budapest.  Here’s a quick tip: book a seat on the train, especially during the holiday season.  I only did this because it was the next option after I bought my ticket online.  Because it cost an extra 3 euro, I hesitated for a few seconds.  My train was standing room only for the seatless, as was an earlier train that some friends stood on for three hours, so I was happy to have my seat by the window.

I had busy plans for once I arrived in Budapest, but after having trouble finding a place to get enough forints for cab fare and finally checking in to the hotel, I felt less energetic.  On my way to check out the Christmas market, I walked right past a cafe that a friend recommend, and stopped there instead.  This is Cafe Paris, on the top floor of a bookstore.   I was thrilled when the hostess led me to a deep leather lounge chair and sank into it.  It was so comfy that I had to pull myself up to read the menu or eat my  lovely cake.  When contemplating leaving the cafe to get to the market before dinner, a pianist started playing Christmas tunes and I sank even deeper into my chair.  I spent the time sipping wonderful Hungarian wine and admiring the frescoes in the cafe.  I did see a little more of Budapest, but the cafe was by far my favorite place in the city!

I found the restaurant in the old Jewish quarter, which is a really interesting district of Budapest. Because of my lounge time, I was a little late getting to dinner and didn’t take any pictures.  Think winding cobbled streets and lots of interesting, four-story or so buildings, joined together like townhouses.  Dinner was traditional Hungarian fare.  The best part was sampling the local alcohol, palinka, which is like a brandy or grappa. Somehow mine was a little smoother than the others served, like it was the beginning or end of a different bottle, but after a few sips I decided it was okay, but not something I would need to buy in vast quantities.  Our waiter was hilarious – there was a menu option for a three course meal for 3o euros, or something like that, so he recommend that we all pick the three most expensive dishes and go to town!  Since some of those dishes involved offal, I opted for an appetizer and two main courses, washed down with hefty doses of Hungarian beer and wine.  My starter was something resembling a zucchini fritter, the first main was an almond crusted trout, and I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember the third course, although I think it was some kind of lamb.

After dinner the more adventurous amongst us went to try out a Budapest ruins bar.  These are bars built into old factories or warehouses.  Ours was Szimpla, which I just read was voted the third best bar in the world by Lonely Planet readers!  And I agree with them – it was an amazing place that I’d be happy to go back to again and again.  The building was huge with lots of options for entertainment.  We stumbled into a sheesha lounge and didn’t turn back, but later I did an exploration loop through the place.  Along with the hookah area, there were lots of quiet rooms with small bars in them, a place in the back that resembled a jazz bar, complete with live music, and a large area in the middle that was more of the rowdy raucous that you’d expect in a such a cavernous place.  I think there’s something for everyone, and the drinks are cheap and keep on coming!  Which is exactly what happened to us.  I hadn’t drank that much for quite some time, so I spent the better part of Christmas Eve recovering in my hotel room.

On Christmas Day I joined some other Olmsteders for a hike up a hill for the best views of Budapest.  It was a pretty easy 10-15 minute walk and although it was cold and windy at the top, the views were amazing!

Although I initially scoffed at the idea, we had lunch at Hooter’s!  It doesn’t sound very Christmasy or adventurous, but for a bunch of scholars who can’t go back to the States for a few years, American food is an absolute comfort.  I forgot how much I loved fried pickles, not to mention the taste of hot wings!  After lunch I finally checked out the Christmas markets and some shop windows.  This market was small, but had lots of amazing food – some of the European scholars voted the Budapest market as the best for food!

Here are few more pics from walking around the city.  It’s beautiful, but like a lot of Eastern European cities, the main buildings could use a good pressure-washing.  I think Budapest had a nice gritty feel to it, which was definitely in contrast to the everlasting perfection of Vienna.

A Taste of Christmas in Vienna

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There’s no place like home for the holidays, but when home isn’t an option, and you live in a non-celebrating country, like Turkey, you’ve got to find the merry where you can.  My first Christmas in Ankara, I stayed in town and even went to class on the 25th. This year I decided to upgrade my holiday experience with a trip to Vienna and Budapest over the week of Christmas.

For a girl used to Ankara, which I would say is a modernizing city with a Middle-eastern bent, Vienna is a real treat. Even though I laughed when a friend compared it to a wedding cake, now I’d have to agree. The buildings are mostly gleaming white and beautifully decorated. There’s no trash laying about, and few leaves astray. While walking around, especially with the city all lit up for Christmas, I felt like I was in a fairy-tale.

Our first priority was Christmas markets, so we started with the largest at Town Hall. Lights shaped like hearts and snowmen hung from the trees leading to the market. The first booth we hit was the gluwein, hot spiced wine served in a real mug, and perfect for sipping while browsing the booths on a cold misty night.

You can buy all kinds of crafty gifts at the market – here’s a selection of what we saw:

Eventually we abandoned the market for the nearest beer house. Aside from the beer, I wasn’t too excited about the menu and chose what looked most decent, a Bergen sausage, without really knowing what it was. It was a lucky choice. Imagine a pork sausage full of cheese and wrapped in bacon, then cooked – amazeballs!

On Sunday I went to the Hofsburg Palace for a morning of culture.  First stop was mass sung by the Vienna Boys Choir.  The singing was absolutely beautiful, but because the boys are way up in the choir loft, you can’t see them until the end of mass, when they do an encore Hallelujah on the altar, kind of like a photo shoot.  Instead, I spent the mass watching some other guys, who I think are like grown-up choir boys, fooling around on the altar.

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Vienna Boy’s Choir at the Hofsberg Chapel

Between the mass and my next event, seeing the Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School, I walked around the palace and enjoyed some more gluwein.  It was pretty misty, but for me it gave the city a nice, Christmasy feel.  In addition to the cleanliness, I loved the beauty of the palace and the statues.  I was surprised to see some Roman ruins right in front of one of the gates – they found them in the 90s!  I think it will be fascinating to revisit all of these sites over my lifetime and see what gets uncovered.

The Spanish Riding School is all about precision and discipline.  I won’t deny that the horses are stunning, and seeing them dance and pirouette was a treat.  However, I guess the American in me was waiting for a little more excitement, like jumping and cowboy-style rodeo tricks.  I should have known to expect an elegant European affair when the horses performed to classical music of Austrian composers and the announcer who explained each school in a crisp, intercontinental English accent.  Luckily I was able to keep myself occupied admiring the beauty of the horses and their riders.  Unfortunately you can’t take pictures during the performances, so here’s a before shot of the hall, and a few pics from the stables.

I spent the rest of the day wandering the city.  Vienna is pretty flat with nice sidewalks, so perfect for walking all day.  As I was getting ready for the evening, the notes of Deck the Halls came through my window.  Although I had to climb onto the windowsill to see it, there was a band walking the street and playing holiday tunes, while stopping in front of the gluwein stalls.  Vienna was perfect for getting into the holiday spirit!

As I was headed to another Christmas market on Sunday night, I stopped by to check out St. Stephen’s and noticed a long line and a guy at the gate.  After a few questions and trying to interpret a sign in German, I learned that there was a holiday concert there in a few minutes.  Feeling it a fortuitous sign, I joined the queue and then got to enjoy the cathedral with the accompaniment of beautiful music.

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